Main Street – Albert Lea

Marion Ross Performing Arts Center - Albert Lea, Minnesota

Marion Ross Performing Arts Center – Albert Lea, Minnesota

Caveat: This is at best drive-by urbanism, I didn’t do any investigative reporting besides citing Wikipedia and visiting and photographing. While we did get out of the car, I don’t claim to know what makes the town tick, but even at a short glance, some issues can be identified.

Albert Lea is a city in and the county seat of Freeborn County in the southeastern part of the State of Minnesota. The population was 18,016 at the 2010 census.

Main Street, Albert Lea

Main Street, Albert Lea

Marion Ross is from Albert Lea. (So is Eddie Cochran.) This is a fact you cannot miss if you visit Albert Lea [photos]. The first thing one notices is that the Main Street, while attempts have been made to restore it, including an active road reconstruction project, is dead. Some may say it is just stunned, but I say its, pinin’ for the Fjords.

Now there are plenty of lovely buildings (most of which have seen better days and have been remodeled badly), and a lovely lake at the end of Main Street, and a nice performing arts center, and pedestrian brick pathways acting as crosswalks, and planters, and no shortage of diagonal on-street parking spaces on the very wide road. But people and economic activity are missing. Physical infrastructure cannot of itself create economic activity. The town has also made special efforts in walkability, but on a mild Saturday afternoon, I saw almost no-one walking.

Main Street, Albert Lea, Minnesota

Main Street, Albert Lea, Minnesota

What could have gone wrong? What activity there was migrated to nearer the interchanges with I-90 and I-35. Albert Lea is the town just southwest of this interchange, and so should be a veritable crossroads of commerce, there are a very limited number of towns on a ‘0 level east-west interstate and a ‘5 level north-south interstate. Had all of the economic activity been concentrated rather than spread out, there would probably be a thriving historic Main Street in the old town area, rather than a “Main Street” (US 65) which is really a Main Highway. Still, the town is declining in population (unlike the other 3 towns we visited), and would make a perfect case for immigration. Here we have an overbuilt capital plant needing people, and all around the world are people who would love to have America’s cast off built infrastructure. Just somehow put 2500 more people living and working on and around Main Street, and the place would be bustling. (Easier said than done, of course.)

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4 Responses to Main Street – Albert Lea

  1. Matt December 30, 2013 at 10:51 am #

    Once problem that has persisted in the post-war era… replacing urban stroad segments with freeways, and then leaving the old interim design. Nearly all old cities bypassed by an interstate or modern bypass struggle with this. Albert Lea, Owatonna, Faribault, even Minneapolis (Park/Portland). We need to ensure that road projects are just not adding capacity, but they are right-sizing facilities. Build 35 outside Owatonna, Faribault, and Albert Lea? Revert the old US highway alignments to be calm local streets. Same thing would work great for Ayd Mill… do a trade. Strong connection from Ayd Mill to 94, but major traffic calming at Selby/Snelling.

  2. Alex December 30, 2013 at 11:03 am #

    When I was in Albert Lea last summer I also noticed the postmortal state of their Main Street (actually Broadway Ave). I also noticed that the city’s parks were full of people enjoying at least semi-active recreation. So I agree that the blame for the failure of this Main Street should fall on developers and city officials, who allowed for the creation of competing business districts on the fringe. But the oldest sections of the competing business districts are themselves getting old, and the population still is mostly centered on Main Street, so maybe it would be better to disallow further development or redevelopment of the highway strip, which would force developers to turn their attention to Main Street.

    • Matt December 30, 2013 at 11:55 am #

      But that doesn’t fit developers’ formulae. And does not comply with regulation, zoning and building codes designed to legitimize sprawl.

  3. Froggie December 31, 2013 at 8:23 am #

    My mother’s side of the family is from Freeborn County. The central part of Albert Lea has been this way as far back as I can remember. Frankly, I don’t think the construction of I-35 and I-90 made much of a difference in this particular case.

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